Biography Dead or Alive? Dispute Roils Cyberspace
Kathryn Hughes, one of England's accomplished biographers (her George Eliot: The Last Victorian won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Biography), has written what amounts to an obituary for the craft of biography. In "The Death of Life Writing," published in the Guardian, Hughes paints a dismal picture.
"Seen close up, and with an eye to proper detail, biography appears in a rather bad way. 'Crisis' would probably be putting it to strongly, not least because it suggests a certain convulsive energy. 'Sclerosis' might be nearer," write Hughes.
Among her "proper details" are sales figures (high for celebrity books, low for serious biographies), the types of subjects publishers are picking, unrealistic deadlines, and unreasonably low advances.
"However, it is when you look at the quality of work produced rather than the number of books sold that you start to fear for the health of a genre that not only predates the novel by centuries (think of Plutarch's Lives), but holds peculiarly British credentials," Hughes writes. As a biographer and professor of the craft, Hughes receives hundreds of titles each year for review. "I have to say I am struck by their recent failing-off. Of course there are always stand-outs, even in a thin year such as 2007 (Hermione Lee's Edith Wharton and Rosemary Hill's Pugin), and 2008 is shaping up to be better, with new work by Richard Holmes and Michael Holroyd in the autumn. But the general standard, the mean, the middling, seems to have sunk to a listless low."
Hughes's long article--well worth reading--raises important questions about the health of biography. In last month's TBC we identified positive trends in the field (new books on biography, new journals, and new funding), but Hughes's view from the other side of the Atlantic is decidedly less encouraging.
Hughes places a great deal of the blame for the decline in biography on Amanda Foreman. "Whenever two or three biographers are gathered together, it isn't long before the names 'Amanda Foreman' and 'Georgiana' come up," writes Hughes. Foreman, of course, is the author of the best-selling Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.
In the course of publicizing the book, Foreman agreed to pose without clothes but well hidden by copies of her book. "By choosing to be photographed nude behind a pile of books, and by allowing her own life story (starry father, tricky adolescence) to become as important as the person she was writing about, Foreman did an accidental disservice to biography in general, and to young women biographers in particular." Furthermore, Hughes believes Foreman's success at such a young age created unrealistic expectations for others to come.
Foreman, however, soon found a defender. "This seems a heavy charge-sheet to lay at Ms. Foreman's door," says John Walsh in the Independent
. The photograph, says Walsh, was hardly daring. "Sure, her shoulders were bare, but you'd see more flesh on display at a duchess's dinner party." Walsh suggests that Hughes is displeased with Foreman more because she wrote successfully "about an 18th-century posh celebrity--a category Ms, Hughes evidently despises."
Hughes's accusation about Foreman triggered a headline in the London Times
--"Bitchiness breaks out in world of biography"--and, of course, the reproduction of the notorious photograph.
The Foreman debate, however, is a distraction from the important questions Hughes raises in her article. Add your voice to this debate. Read Hughes's article
and send your comments on her analysis to us
. We will publish your thoughts in the September issue.
Progress Made on Forming
A Biographers' Organization
The response to the open letter published in the July issue of TBC has been heartening. More than sixty biographers have volunteered to help get an organization off the ground. Discussions are now underway, and we are considering holding a founding congress in New York City in the spring of 2009.
Work is being done to create a mission statement and bylaws for the organization; these may be presented at the founding meeting.
We still need help. If you are interested in joining this effort, please write us.
Famed Photojournalist Tretick's Work Goes Online
This enchanting photograph of John Kennedy, Jr., watching the helicopter take off from the White House (reproduced here by permission © Estate of Stanley Tretick) is one of many gems contained in the work of photojournalist Stanley Tretick. More than 8,000 images of major American figures taken by Tretick may now be viewed online at stanleytretick.com.
Having worked for Life
, NBC, People
, and UPI, Tretick covered every president from Truman to Reagan. During the Kennedy years he had special access to the family and shot the iconic photo of three-year-old John Kennedy, Jr., playing under his father's desk in the Oval Office a month before the president was assassinated.
Tretick was also with Robert Kennedy when he was fatally shot in Los Angeles. "Stanley told me he was so destroyed that he took a four-month leave from Look
magazine," said biographer Kitty Kelley, who was Tretick's friend for two decades.
A show of the photographer's work, "Bobby, Martin & John: Once Upon an American Dream," is on exhibit
at the Frazier International History Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, until October 5 of this year.
Tretick left his photographic archive to Kelley, who worked to set up and create this website for historians, librarians, researchers, and publishers, as well as collectors.
AP Corporate Archive: An Overlooked Treasurer Trove
The rarely used but rich archives of one of the nation's oldest news-gathering organizations may hold valuable material for biographers. Founded in 2003, the Associated Press Corporate Archives holds and preserves records of the AP, a cooperative news-gathering organization that dates back to 1846.
The archive contains records of the AP general files, which include correspondence from foreign and domestic bureaus, subject files, and corporate records. Also in the archive are the personal papers of former reporters, as well as the story files from important bureaus, such as those in Birmingham, Alabama; Washington, DC; and Jerusalem. Additionally, since 1972 the archive has been conducting interviews with former AP staffers for an oral-history collection.
The archive, located in New York City, is open by appointment. For more information, contact director Valerie S. Komor.
Yet More All-Time Favorites
A continuing series featuring favorite biographies of biographers.
T.J. Stiles, the biographer of Jesse James whose long-awaited treatment of Cornelius Vanderbilt will be in stores this spring, struggled with his list because he knows so many biographers personally, making it tricky to proclaim preferences. "In thinking about my favorites," he said, "I realized how many people I know who have written biographies, some of which would make my top five, and some of which would not." So he decided to leave out works by any author he knew. "Still, these are all books worth saluting."
- Peter Green, Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 BC: A Historical Biography (University of California Press)
- William McFeeley, Grant (W.W. Norton)
- Claire Tomalin, Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self (Knopf)
- Joseph Frazier Wall, Andrew Carnegie (University of Pittsburgh Press)
- Robert Caro, Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson (Knopf)
"One of the marks of a great biography is when it gets you engrossed in a life you never thought would be interesting," said Stiles.
Tomalin also makes the list of Mark Scroggins, most recently author of The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky. There is a literary slant to this list. "I am after all a literature professor and a literary biographer," Scroggins said. His list:
- Claire Tomalin, Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self (Knopf)
- Edgar Johnson, Sir Walter Scott: The Great Unknown, two volumes (Hamish Hamilton)
- Richard Ellman, James Joyce (second edition, Oxford University Press)
- Lytton Strachey, Eminent Victorians
- James Boswell, Life of Johnson
Lilla Ross, a journalist and member of the Association of Personal Historians, came up with an eclectic list that includes autobiographies as well as biographies. Most interestingly, she listed a remarkable and joy-filled memoir by Donald Hall. String Too Short to Be Saved: Recollections of Summers on a New England Farm is a wonderful remembrance to be savored by a winter fire. Among the books she listed, she included these two biographies:
- Gerald Clarke, Capote: A Biography (Carroll & Graf)
- Alec Wilkinson, My Mentor: A Young Man's Friendship with William Maxwell (Houghton Mifflin)
Obituary: Eric Silver, Biographer of Menachem Begin
Eric Silver, who wrote the first extended biography of Israel's prime minister Menachem Begin, died on July 16 at age 73.
A native of Leeds, England, Silver first went to the Middle East in 1967 to cover the aftermath of the Six-Day War for the Guardian newspaper. He returned later as a correspondent. In 1984 Silver published Begin: The Haunted Prophet (Random House), which was well received. In a New York Times review Christopher Lehmann-Haupt praised the book as "incisive" and quoted the following passage:
"Menachem Begin governed Israel for six years and three months, which made him the longest-serving Prime Minister after the founding father David Ben-Gurion. He revealed himself as a complex, but not a mysterious, man, a paradox but not a puzzle: an unrepentant terrorist who won the Nobel Peace Prize, then launched another war. A democrat and an autocrat. A courtly rabble-rouser, Polish gentleman and Levantine cult hero. A man of honor with whom it was wise to read the small print. A conspirator who found it hard to keep a secret."
He left the paper in 1987 and settled in Jerusalem. He died while undergoing cancer treatment.
Amanuensis: A person whose employment is to write what another dictates, or to copy what another has written. Source: Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913)
After she ran into him at the fair they started courting, and for the next seven years, as his work took him travelling through England, Ireland, France and Holland, he wrote her almost 100 love letters. One day, in a fit of pique, she tore them into tiny pieces and stuffed the shreds into a cushion from which, 40 years later, Ted retrieved them. He spent 15 years, on and off, sorting the fragments, sticking them back together and photocopying the restored originals. Now he plans to write a book based on the letters, to be called A Week at Stanton, as a tribute to Mollie--who became his wife, and died three years ago after 50 years of marriage. Read more. . .
--Jane Shilling, London Times
"So tell me," my wife, Donna, said one day, not exactly out of the blue, "is this book going to take 10 years?"
Since I'd been assuring everyone--my publisher, myself, my family, and the living subject of my biography, the former Yale University chaplain William Sloane Coffin Jr.--that this was a five-year project (well, maybe six), I leaped to defend myself. "No, no, impossible, unthinkable." The capacity for self-deception is powerful. Read more. . .--Warren Goldstein, Chronicle of Higher Education
Research ideas contributed by readers
Passport Treasures Await Those Who Know
How to Ask
Though passports were not generally required for travel until World War I, the US Government has been issuing them almost since its inception. As a result, a rich trove of documents relating to US passports is held by the federal government, including applications--containing a wealth of information--as well as original photographs rarely used by biographers and historians.
Here is what you need to know to access this material:
If your subject's records are prior to 1925, all the material is in the custody of the National Archive and Records Administration (NARA). The records after 1925 are kept by the Department of State.
For the earlier documents, an index exists for applications between 1795 and 1925. It may be used at a NARA site or, for a fee, through Ancestry.com (You can retrieve image files of the actual applications using this index.)
The applications contain wonderful information. For example, you may learn such physical details as eye and hair color, forehead shape (high, low), size of mouth, and complexion. The applications also include place of birth, names of parents, and citizenship (birth or naturalized). They may even have affidavits from others, which can give you clues about the person's acquaintances.
Valuable tip: You can obtain high-quality reproductions of early passport pictures. To do so, you must begin by writing a letter to the following:
Modern Civilian Reference
8601 Adelphi Road
College Park, MD 20740-6001
Attn: David Pfeiffer
You need to ask for the volume, box number, and location number for the person's passport application. Include the application number. To minimize confusion, attach a photocopy of the application, which can be printed from the index.
NARA will promptly respond with a letter containing all the requested information. A vendor who works at the College Park NARA facility--where these records are stored--can then make a photograph of the record for you. Below is the best vendor for this purpose:
18712 Purple Martin Lane
Gaithersburg, MD 20879
Be sure to provide a copy of the NARA letter with the crucial locating information.
To conduct a similar search for later records (after 1925), you must contact the Department of State. Ask for a copy of the passport application or renewal--it's a good idea to request both. Include as much information as possible to narrow the search. You will need to provide proof that your subject is dead--an obituary is usually sufficient--and a fee of $45.00 (subject to change). Submit this material to:
Research and Liaison Branch
1111 19th Street, NW, Room 500
Washington, DC 20524-1705
Thanks to David Stenn, Hollywood biographer with prodigious research skills, for providing these useful tips. He is the author of Bombshell : The Life and Death of Jean Harlow (Doubleday) and Clara Bow: Runnin' Wild (Doubleday).
Two books all biographers want on their shelves
How to Do Biography: A Primer by Nigel Hamilton, $22.95
A User's Guide
by Carl Rollyson
From the Editor's Desk
A week or so ago I closed the last file folder of existing archival material on my subject. When I left the Rare Book and Manuscript Room at Columbia University that afternoon, a feeling of melancholy enveloped me. Only folks who do our kind of work would understand. Others in different fields might feel a sense of triumph. Instead, I felt blue.
As I thought about my state, I realized it was yet another reminder that for many of us the chase of our subject and the process of rendering it into a biography provides a deeper, more satisfying thrill than the finished book on the store shelf. As trite as it sounds, the destination is less important than the voyage.
I know a worse letdown awaits me this winter, when, after more than four years of research and writing, I will complete the last page of my manuscript. I mentioned to a male colleague that I thought it would be the closest I would come to post-partum depression. His advice? "Get pregnant again fast."
Speaking of archival work, are you sure that letter you are reading is real? Lee Israel, a biographer and editor, confesses in her memoir Can You Ever Forgive Me? that she spent two years forging and selling letters to autograph dealers. Two of them were so realistic that they were published in The Letters of Noel Coward (Knopf). She was caught in an FBI sting and sentenced to five-years probation and six-months house arrest. In addition to forging letters, Israel stole some from archives. Read about her sordid tale and how she hopes to profit from it through the sales of her memoir. (The New York Times also reviewed it.)Apparently, there is no Son of Sam law when it comes to literary crimes.
Do you listen to music while writing? If so, tell us about it. What kind of music? Do you employ different types for different tasks ('50s rock & roll for note taking, Bach for composing)? Send in your thoughts.
James McGrath Morris
P.S. Be sure to read Tips Corner this month. It will lead you to a huge cache of documents that may contain wonderful details and maybe even a new photograph of your subject.
Sold to Publishers
The following are among the biographies sold to publishers in July, as reported by Publishers Marketplace and other sources.Paul Maher, Jr.,
Jack Kerouac, American Writer II: Modern Disintegration:
1951 to 1956,
to Southern Illinois University Press
Jean Edward Smith,
W: A Biography of President George W. Bush,
to Random House
If Trouble Don't Kill Me (lives of Saford and Clayton Hall, bluegrass musicians),
What Almost Happened to Hedy Lamar,
to Corona Books
Days of the World, Years of the World: A Biography of Rachel Carson,
Gabriel Marquez: A Life,
Noble Purpose: The Life of William Henry Seward,
to Simon & Schuster
An Accidental Tragedy: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots,
Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan, biography of artist Francis Bacon,
The following are biographies in stores this month. In cooperation with Publishers Weekly, many titles are now accompanied with a link to the PW review.
Look Up: The Life & Art of Sacha Kolin
by Lisa Thaler
(MidMarch Arts Press) White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson
by Brenda Wineapple (Knopf)PW Review
The Same Man: George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh in Love and War
by David Lebedoff. (Random House)PW Review Hard Driving: The Wendell Scott Story: The American Odyssey of Nascar's First Black Driver
by Brian Donovan (Steerforth)PW Review
The Little Giant: The Story of Johnny Griffin
by Mike Hennessey (Northway Publications)
The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin's Secret Service
by Andrew Meier
Milton: Poet, Pamphleteer, and Patriot
by Anna Beer (Bloomsbury Press)PW Review
The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson
by Kevin J. Hayes
Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation
by John Carlin
(Penguin Press)PW Review
|New in Paperback
by Luis Lourenço
(Dewi Lewis Media)
James McGrath Morris, editor
P.O. Box 660
Tesuque, NM 87574